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‘Slam poetry’ is all rhyme no reason Today's court poets reflect a society that's given up on shared values

A court poet hard at work. (Photo by PATRICK SEMANSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

A court poet hard at work. (Photo by PATRICK SEMANSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)


February 17, 2021   6 mins

My first proper boyfriend wooed me on a damp campsite in northern France, with bad red wine and a reading of The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. I must have already been a TS Eliot fan for his technique to work, as Prufrock isn’t really a romantic poem.

Despite my own susceptibility to poetry, I had always imagined that, in this age of mass media, it was as niche a phenomenon as lepidopterology or flag-collecting. Imagine my surprise, then, in 2016, when I was given a copy of Hollie McNish’s collection of poems about motherhood, Nobody Told Me. Her short, intense pieces about motherhood spoke to me as a new mum. But here, too, was proof that poetry could be a best-seller in the 21st century, and poets could hold sell-out gigs and be venerated on Mumsnet 

If McNish is now a cult figure among mothers, poetry has climbed to still giddier heights since Nobody Told Me was published, most recently with the central role played by 22-year-old “slam poet” Amanda Gorman at the inauguration of Joe Biden as US President. Gorman’s poem (and her person, her attire, her youth and even her allegedly very empowering headband) have made her the subject of fevered discourse since her performance.

One can only imagine what Plato would have thought. In the Republic, Plato argued that by virtue of mirroring the messy temporal world, rather than the ideal one of metaphysical Forms, poetry drew human eyes away from contemplating the Good. Far from making poets a central part of presidential inaugurations, Plato thought they should be banned from his ideal republic.

His disciple Aristotle disagreed, though, arguing that poetry can in fact reveal better versions of the world we live in, helping us to direct our search for that Good. And whether or not you like Gorman’s style, it’s idealistic writing in its most unabashedly Aristotelian form.

Impressionistic and kinetic, The Hill We Climb tells a story of American democracy as something incomplete, whose pursuit is a task that falls on the shoulders of every new American generation. It captures perfectly the progressive ideal: a sense of utopia that constantly needs renewal. Society is threatened by “a force that would shatter our nation/rather than share it”. But, says Gorman, this opposition is destined to be defeated, by the determination of the faithful to “raise this wounded world into a wondrous one”.

Gorman is not the first poet to read verse at a presidential inauguration. But the response to her performance reveals a shift in 21st century Western politics, as well as in our relationship to poetry. That shift takes us away from the rationalistic style that’s been our norm for centuries, and back toward one that pre-dates the founding of America itself: the age of Elizabeth I.

In 1595, as a member of Elizabeth’s court, Sir Phillip Sidney made the first self-conscious modern move away from the Platonic aversion to verse. In A Defense of Poesie, Sidney argued for the improving power of poetry; far from being something toxic that should be banned from politics, Sidney suggested, the aim of poetry should be “to teach and delight”.

That is, it’s not just legitimate to gift-wrap moral messages in art, in the interests of the greater good. It’s something all artists should be aiming to do across their creative work. It sounds high-minded, but in practice it led to the increasingly deliberate use of literature and performance as propaganda.

The court in which Sidney operated, both as a writer and politician, was a place in which theatricality and power merged in ways that are difficult to imagine today. Masques, poems, allegories and theatrical performances were inseparable from political influence. And for Elizabeth, performing as a queen was impossible to separate from actually being queen.

During nearly every summer of her 44-year reign, she would stage a spectacular Queen’s Progress in which she’d travel slowly across her realm, elaborately dressed and surrounded by thousands of guards, animals, carts, servants and flunkeys. And while no one since Elizabeth has fused power and theatre with such skill and impact, theatre carved a deep groove through the politics of the age that followed.

It wasn’t until after 1688, when the Glorious Revolution put paid to all the drama — by ending absolute monarchy in favour of a purely ceremonial role — that poetry gradually freed itself from propagandising for the ruling class. Poets took advantage of the blossoming publishing revolution, and gave up aristocratic patronage for earning a living in print. The most famous poets of the subsequent era, the Romantics, wafted around largely detached from real centres of political power while describing themselves — in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous words of 1821 — as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”.

Yet the manipulative potential of storytelling didn’t go away. Instead, it migrated to the parallel domains of political propaganda and commercial advertising, whose pioneers were often one and the same. One such was Edward Bernays, whose description in 1928 of the propagandist as an “an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country” echoes almost word-for-word Shelley’s characterisation of the poet.

Fast-forward another century and a new publishing revolution — the digital one — has largely scuppered the income stream that freed the Romantics from the need to seek patronage. The result has been a new class of court poet, whether it’s George the Poet offering corporate presentations in poetic form or Pam Ayres writing advertising doggerel. Hollie McNish, justifying her decision to do a voiceover for an energy supplier, explained: “I think anyone who entirely berates an artist for doing corporate work has likely never been in the financial position to find it hard to turn down.”

But the internet has also had profound consequences for those other inheritors of Aristotle and Sidney: the worlds of advertising and propaganda. Thanks to the internet, we’re no longer passive recipients of messages from TV, print and the press. Instead, we’re all in control of the means (and memes) of symbolic production. Just as Elizabeth I treated her rule as a deadly serious form of LARPing, whenever we pause to take and post a selfie we’re adding to our very own online Queen’s Progress: each of us engaged in never-ending dramatisation of our idealised selves.

And the power of the new online propaganda free-for-all has driven us back into the arms of Elizabethan-style rhetoric, too. Wordplay such as puns and alliteration were part of the rhetorical stock-in-trade for an Elizabethan wordsmith. And while such fancy verbal footwork was frowned upon in the Age of Reason, perhaps it’s only natural that it once again finds a home in a new progressiveness that dismisses objectivity, truth and linear thinking as “whiteness”.

And indeed, in Gorman’s work, her plain-English style gains a “poetic” feeling in speech via rhymes, resonance and puns. “What just is/Isn’t always justice”, as she writes. The slickness of the wordplay makes it seem a done deal, smuggling the revolutionary desire to dynamite all existing norms — including what we understand as ‘justice’ – past the listener, on a tide of verbal showboating.

If there’s a difference today, it’s that unlike the Elizabethan court, the digital-era update of “slam poetry” seeks to purge language of any reference to literary tradition. Elizabethan poets mingled Biblical references with classical ones in a dazzling range of allusions. But today, even superficially innocent areas of literary and cultural study are coded alongside objectivity as problematic repositories of whiteness.

A modern court rhetoric capable of being both persuasive and inclusive must be purged of any dangerous nods to tradition. Such apparent plainness, blending wordplay with a stubborn refusal to be overtly “literary”, has prompted attacks on Hollie McNish and other “Instapoets” for producing “consumer-driven content”. It’s a style that also infuriates conservative critics of Gorman’s work. One characterised it (accurately) as the perfect embodiment of a politics that “amounts, simply, to a total dissociation from and dissolution of the bonds of our national past”.

What such critics miss, though, is that what we’re seeing here is the birth of a new, broadly popular court literary style that’s the perfect complement to the mode of government emerging worldwide in the wake of the pandemic: a media-saturated regime based not on shared social norms but the pure exercise of power to enforce its own vision — even as counterfactually as abolishing the legal standing of biological sex.

Its moral register is love hearts on the White House lawn, and the hygienic language of “empowerment” and “communities”, beloved of the (slam-poetry-loving, naturally) Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Its modus operandi is a mixture of therapeutic language and coercive force, backed by surveillance and censorship where necessary. Gorman herself characterises this new hybrid regime more charitably than perhaps I could:

“If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy,
and change our children’s birthright.”

It’s the perfect sentiment for an event that swapped a human audience for placeholder flags and surrounded a celebration of democracy with concrete barriers and 15,000 National Guardsman brought in to defend democracy from the demos.

If we’re alternately intrigued and creeped out by the wordsmiths who’ve found the magic formula to “teach and delight” in a world that no longer values reasoned argument, it’s because something decisive has shifted. The Age of Reason is over. Rhetoric is back. The new court poets are jostling for patronage.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Vikram Sharma
Vikram Sharma
3 years ago

In a culture where Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst are considered artists, why should we be surprised that any jumble of words is considered great poetry?
Picasso could paint like a Dutch master at 14. Van Gogh had mastered almost all previous forms, including Japanese painting style, before he embarked on developing his unique style. You cannot be an artist before you have mastered the craft. And for pushing the boundaries of a form, you have to first know what and where those boundaries are.
In contemporary society, art and craft have become completely delinked. So modern art does not appeal either to our aesthetic sense, which should be evoked by the craft within, or speak to our emotional life, since the piece is narcissistic expression of one individual rather than about a shared human experience.
Poetry has gone the same way.
And in general if you despise everything from your past as wicked and oppressive and ‘white’ why would you allude to it anyway?

Last edited 3 years ago by Vikram Sharma
Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

Great comment, thank you.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

Three cheers for this wonderfully pointed and sensible comment.

Christopher Gage
Christopher Gage
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

Yes! An interesting book: ‘Daily Rituals’ which outlined how dedicated to their craft the greats were.
We Millennials will never come close. We were taught that self-esteem comes before competence, not the other way around. A remarkable disaster.

Scott Norman Rosenthal
Scott Norman Rosenthal
3 years ago

And self-esteem, as anything else taken to its extreme, becomes an absurdity: Mere egotism.

Alan Gilbert
Alan Gilbert
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

Excellent comment.

David Brewer
David Brewer
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

Good points, but don’t you have a contradictory negative:

… why should we be surprised that any jumble of words is not considered great poetry?

Don’t you mean that in our current culture we should not be surprised that any jumble of words is considered great poetry?

Vikram Sharma
Vikram Sharma
3 years ago
Reply to  David Brewer

I do, and apologies. I was hoping the very clever readership of this site will see it for it is- a typo

Last edited 3 years ago by Vikram Sharma
Dan Martin
Dan Martin
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

Without craft there can be no art.
https://genericalman.com/2019/12/12/artsy-fartsy/

Sean Arthur Joyce
Sean Arthur Joyce
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

Thank you for your erudite comment. As a poet myself I would have made a very similar observation. So much of what is currently being published as poetry, even as “award winners,” I find dull, pedantic, and narcissistic, even outright boring. “Poetry should arise to ecstasy somewhere between song and speech,” said San Francisco Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He also decried the now sadly long-established trend of broken-up prose as poetry, stripped of its rich legacy of metaphor, allegory, symbolism and mythology. “Your language must sing, with or without rhyme, to justify it being in the typography of poetry.” —Poetry As Insurgent Art, New Directions, 1975/2007, pp. 15, 44.

Walter Brigham
Walter Brigham
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

Your whiteness is showing – way too much objectivity

Last edited 3 years ago by Walter Brigham
Tom Fox
Tom Fox
3 years ago

Perhaps it is just me, but I feel increasing outrage at the way BBC Radio 4 highlights so called ‘poets’ and ‘artists’ (who happen to be black) who come on mouthing utter trash in some strange south London patois. Sometimes it is described as ‘Rap’ and sometimes as ‘Poetry’. What affronts me apart from the material being worthless, is that no white kid would ever be given the time of day by these arts promoters.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Fox

Just stop listening or watching the BBC entirely. You will feel a lot better. I threw out the TV over 20 years ago – ahead of the trend as always – and have totally cut out the radio over the last couple of years. I don’t even listen to the football commentaries any more on 5Live, preferring instead the ‘watch alongs’ on YouTube. You can live a perfectly normal and happy life without the wretchedly sanctimonious and wicked BBC.

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I beat you by 18 months on the giving up the telly front, I removed it from my life in September 1999.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Alison, do you think that makes you more or less qualified to comment on modern culture?

G Matthews
G Matthews
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

As pretty much everyone under the age of 30 has given up on terrestrial linear TV then it makes her more qualified

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Ah…but my parents refused to have a TV for all of the 60s and much of the 70s, so they beat you! To be fair to the TV people there was a lot of good TV in the 70s, 80s and 90s. I didn’t even have a T when I was commissioned to write for one of the UK’s most successful TV comedy shows in the early noughties, I had to visit friend to see my work on TV.

Tim N
Tim N
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I agree. Radio 4 has become dispensable and apart from the adverts, commercial radio provides a more plural commentary.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  Tim N

My children were born in 1978 and 1980 and I chose to bring them up without a TV. I got one in 1997.

Sandra Crook
Sandra Crook
3 years ago
Reply to  Tim N

I remember a time when I had a radio in every room of the house, all tuned to Radio 4, so that I might move about my housework enjoying continuity. I still have a radio in every room; all of them turned off.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
3 years ago
Reply to  Tim N

Or radio 3 so long as you remember to turn off at the right times

Richard Brown
Richard Brown
3 years ago

Radio 3 makes more sense than all the rest of the BBC put together. Apart from the times when they play some dreary dirge solely on the grounds that its composer was female or black or gay, often all three.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Brown

Yes what a joy it is to listen to Bach before seven, in contrast to the hysteria of Radio 4 and the Today programme.

Last edited 3 years ago by George Lake
Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Brown

Choice of performers is similarly biased wherever it can be, and interviewees, and presenters too.
The progressives’ festivals of black/women/gay do not go by unmarked.
The audience remains what it always was of course, under this new instruction.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

A once popular “bumper sticker” in the US was: Kill Your Television. I still have one.

Ralph Windsor
Ralph Windsor
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

Kill the BBC might be more appropriate today. Or, it that’s too revolutionary, just Kill the TVL Poll tax.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I can totally vouch for this. I am on the cusp of throwing out my cell phone. I am quite convinced it is just as bad if not worse.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Unsubscribe from the incredibly dishonest & woke New York Times as well.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Fox

Why are you still in an abusive relationship?

G Matthews
G Matthews
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Fox

I feel outrage that people like you are apparently so captured by the BBC that you feel unable to stop listening to it. Do you not have free will? Why have you lost agency?

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Fox

“no white kid would ever be given the time of day by these arts promoters”

I have not studied Radio 4’s poetic output as extensively as you, but are you claiming that Radio 4 only features poetry by Black poets? Or even exclusively non-white poets?
On the face of it, this seems unlikely…

“mouthing utter trash in some strange south London patois”

ï»ż

Your accent (and mine) may also sound strange to many.

Last edited 3 years ago by Paul N
Robert Forde
Robert Forde
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

It is worse than unlikely. It is plain misinformation.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Fox

Tut, tut, Mr Fox as ill mannered as ever. Did your better half not procure the Prozac?
However I must agree with you over the Black Rap rubbish, although like G Mathews and ER, below, I wonder why you were listening to the BBC in the first place.

Christopher Gage
Christopher Gage
3 years ago

It’s perfectly Millennial: all condiment, and no food. My generation thinks we can fool anyone with gimmickry and mimicry. Perhaps a result of the self-esteem culture forbidding of honest (or any) criticism. Everyone’s an artist.

J Moore
J Moore
3 years ago

Don’t be too hard on yourself(selves) Chris. You’re analogies have already made me smile, twice, this today.

David FĂŒlöp
David FĂŒlöp
3 years ago

I completely agree on the gimmick / mimicking. I think we were brought up believing anything is possible but they always omitted the hard work requirement bit.

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago

Your honesty is sorely needed, Christopher. And to be fair I see no reason Millenials would fare any worse than the generations that preceded them, so long as they started “walking the walk” before “talking the talk”. If you are still alive, it is never too late.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
3 years ago

I’m glad you feel this way. I thought I was alone in finding Ms Gorman’s performance largely a recital of stale cliches, which is the deepest criticism which can be made of a poet. Poetry is about language – making it work anew. If the language is dead, you can’t bring it to life with a sing-song delivery or even with youth and beauty (which admittedly Ms Gorman possesses).

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

I misread your “recital” – not unserendipitously as it happens – without the “i”.

David Bottomley
David Bottomley
3 years ago

Line from Yeats The Second Coming seem quite apt- the last 2 lines below in particular?

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity

Last edited 3 years ago by David Bottomley
Adam M
Adam M
3 years ago

Left wing progressives need to stop pretending that their continued promotion of cultures other than their own has anything to do with love of those cultures. It is instead, all based on hate. Self hate!
Now it’s one thing to be vain enough to hate ones self but quite another to insist that those one considers their kin, share this level of self flagellation.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
3 years ago
Reply to  Adam M

They do not hate themselves. They just hate the rest of us. They all share the same puerile fantasy that has them leading the downtrodden to salvation. None of them envisage a future in which they are a humble surf tolling on some collective farm for the greater good

Marcus Millgate
Marcus Millgate
3 years ago
Reply to  Adam M

While I enjoy Michael Palin’s travel (& comedy) works. He can’t help showing contempt whenever he sees remnants of British colonial days on his travels, yet praises remnants of other Empires

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago

Yes, and he has absolutely no excuse, except that most of Oxbridge felt it was rather ‘smart’ to be a socialist in the sixties.

Many off course, ‘grew’ out of it, but sadly not Palin and a few others of that ilk.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
3 years ago

Well. I thought I was the only one who didn’t like the poem. I’ve been chastised for not. My left leaning what used to be “friends” insisted it was a call for unity. I tried to point out that outside of the first few lines it sounded like a flowery declaration of war against the political right. I would never have thought of joining Elizabeth I and Edward Bernays. I find the comparison interesting to say the least. Thanks. Loved the article.

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago

I must have already been a TS Eliot fan for his technique to work, as Prufrockisn’t really a romantic poem.

ah – but did he spread you out against the sky, like a patient etherised upon a table?

Gerald gwarcuri
Gerald gwarcuri
3 years ago

A society that can give rise to and hearty endorsement of “rap” ( which is definitively distinct from music ) is a society in free fall. The influence of this narcissistic form of expression is everywhere.

David FĂŒlöp
David FĂŒlöp
3 years ago

Every time the BBC describes the latest wave of rappers as “artists” or “musicians” I cringe.

Last edited 3 years ago by David FĂŒlöp
Fred Trew
Fred Trew
3 years ago

Tell me, do you also cringe at John Cage, or Marcel Duchamp?

Fred Trew
Fred Trew
3 years ago

I don’t think you have enough knowledge to understand what you are talking about.

“Rap” is an extremely broad category that encompasses some absolute garbage, and some profoundly creative, rigorous linguistic experimentation, on a level with Shakespeare.

If you feel inclined to challenge your biases, Definitive Juxtaposition Records in New York have been producing artists such as AĂ«sop Rock, Cannibal Ox, Del the Funky Homosapian, and other highly learned and articulate rappers and musicians for 20+ years, whose words are on a par with anything produced in the European poetic cannon.

The origins of rap begin with people such as Run DMC, Basquiat and Kool Herc, and are forms of story telling set to music.

Which is, by the way, an ancient mode of human interaction- presumably you would not dismiss the myths of Troy or the folk tales of Grimm as examples of “society in free fall?”

Perhaps do some research before tarring an entire genre with the few vulgar imbeciles who also produce “rap”.

erylbalazs
erylbalazs
3 years ago
Reply to  Fred Trew

Well said. I’m not a big rap fan but am willing to be open to different forms of cultural expression, which reflect the diversity of our human history and have been moved by some rap and expression I have experienced. I am waiting for an article bemoaning the decline of ballroom dancing and the waltz next, then a similar outpouring of bile against twerking. I’ve nothing against all these forms of dance by the way but I thought we lived in an age of artistic freedom. We can’t hold back the tide of time but just throw out your tv and radio then pretend you can.

Sean Arthur Joyce
Sean Arthur Joyce
3 years ago

Some excellent comments on this article. It’s a sign of the arrogance and narcissism of this generation that they think they know better than 10,000 years of accumulated human knowledge, wisdom and craft, whether in poetry or anything else. It’s the central fallacy of Modernism. While aesthetic preferences and trends constantly change, the current “burn everything from the past” mentality only reflects the sheer ignorance of its adherents.
And on the topic of “using might for right,” (chilling!) the great historian Arnold Toynbee had this one nailed a long time ago when he said: “An end does not justify a means. Means and ends must be ethically consistent. This principle is borne out by experience. It is psychologically impossible to do right at state two by deliberately doing wrong at stage one. If one is wrong at the outset, it is impossible to reach a righteous goal.” —Arnold Toynbee, The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue, Kodansha International, Tokyo/New York, 1976, p. 211

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

You know you can always turn to me if you want decent poetry, Mary. And know that you will be among a very special minority of one or two people who look at my blog each day.

http://www.readmypoems.co.uk/

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

I have now bookmarked your blog Alison. From the three poems that I have read, they will be very much appreciated.

Last edited 3 years ago by Claire D
Paul
Paul
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

I follow you on youtube too. Please, I am no stalker so dont read too much into that statement 😉 I enjoy your natural style and some of your lovely house that gets a little picture time too occasionally.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Have you written anything on Beverley Minster or even Howden Minster, may I ask?

David Bottomley
David Bottomley
3 years ago

If we merge……….. and ‘might with right’ sounds worryingly like a rallying call for any would be dictator determined to impose his/ her idea of ‘right’ and believe it or not I could hear any politician using those sentiments. Whether left wing or right wing we all hear stuff like ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime ‘ which kind of fuses might, right and love.

(As for the inauguration poem – I kind of switched off to it but then I switched off to the whole thing. Oh my, the Americans love a bit of ceremony . Imagine if we in the UK had to go through something similar every time we got a new PM! Think I prefer the walk to the door of No 10 and the few words at a hastily positioned podium in front of the Press. Mind you, I expect we will have loads of ceremony when the next Monarch is crowned – but of course the role of the Monarchy is mainly to be ‘ceremonial’. )

Last edited 3 years ago by David Bottomley
Graham Buchan
Graham Buchan
3 years ago

Been to a few slam events. They are dominated by rhymey, right-on, ‘I’m up from the streets’ type of doggerel. The winner of a slam is invariable the one who causes the least offence to the audience at large and who ticks the highest number of woke boxes. That the BBC pipes oxygen into such nonsense is an outrage. This is where I am at, and I welcome criticism. (2) Graham Buchan – YouTube

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Graham Buchan

Well said. I used to go to slam events quite a lot, until I reconciled myself to the inescapable awfulness of the genre. Nowadays I write formal verse, 99% in strict iambic pentameter. One of my sonnets is below.

Jonathan Barker
Jonathan Barker
3 years ago

In the ancient days poets were regarded as sacred beings involved in a magical process, who dredged up or released from the center of the world a consideration of existence not commonly touched upon by people involved in the conventional mind and speech of logical propositions. There is a rhythm, a meter, in poetry that corresponds to a certain ecstasy of mind that is very different from the conventional mind that makes common speech or (seemingly) logical propositions.
The occupation of making poetry has traditionally been regarded as a kind of sacred activity engaged by sacred fools who were out of touch with the usual structure of things, at least when in the mood of poetry.

C P
C P
3 years ago

Feel free to call me a pedant but Philip Sidney died in 1586. The Defence of Poesy (c. 1580) was published posthumously in 1595.
Here is another Elizabethan (Marlowe) with his definition of poetry: something for which we strive but never quite attain.

What is beauty, saith my sufferings, then?

If all the pens that ever poets held

Had fed the feeling of their masters’ thoughts,

And every sweetness that inspired their hearts,

Their minds, and muses on admired themes;

If all the heavenly quintessence they still

From their immortal flowers of poesy,

Wherein, as in a mirror, we perceive

The highest reaches of a human wit;

If these had made one poem’s period,

And all combined in beauty’s worthiness,

Yet should there hover in their restless heads

One thought, one grace, one wonder, at the least,

Which into words no virtue can digest.

This is a personal opinion and not a value judgement but Ms Gorman is in the same tradition as the writers of popular ballards, as are most of the contemporary writers mentioned above.

Last edited 3 years ago by C P
Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
3 years ago
Reply to  C P

I still read John Clare’s ‘Pastoral Poesy’ having discovered it many years ago

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago

Sonnet 59
by Richard Craven
No barbarous australopithecine
shall squirt his jet on your concavity,
in which there lurks no turquoise rusk of pine,
for you’re ephemeral and really witty,
white porcelain’s perfection, of p155oir
apotheosis. Zamfir’s curdling pipes
cloak no unseemly sounds. Instead, a choir
of Dadaists pompously talking tripe.
For you’re ephemeral – I mentioned this – 
you were effaced in 1917,
thrown out by Stieglitz, sacrificed as trash.
And yet, of all the pots Mott made for p155,
your fame endures: a shiny pot and clean,
fit for a Platonist to have a slash.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

This is one of nine of my conventional iambic pentameter-compliant sonnets that got published just before New Year in The Hypertexts. Googling e.g. “no barbarous Australopithecine” should take you more or less straight to the site.

j hoffman
j hoffman
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Very Nice! Better than the brief fragment of mine I posted earlier.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  j hoffman

Thanks very much!

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Excellent, bravo!

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  George Lake

Thank you, George!

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago

I was in a poetry scene for awhile. One of the venuesxwas a dive bar where we all got drunk and engaged in good natured heckling and ribbing from the folding chairs set up in the back. It was a blast!

The other venues were posher bars and jazz clubs, and though it was all the same people, the rooms were absolutely dead, and you really got a chance to see how bad the work really was.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

I don’t think that this woman’s rhymes will ever be read on a blanket at a picnic…read her pre-Super Bowl paen.

Swiveleyed Loon
Swiveleyed Loon
3 years ago

I would love to contribute to the discussion about poetry but I can’t get past this:
…the mode of government emerging worldwide in the wake of the pandemic: a media-saturated regime based not on shared social norms but the pure exercise of power to enforce its own vision… its modus operandi is a mixture of therapeutic language and coercive force, backed by surveillance and censorship where necessary.
Poets, help us, please. You may be the ones to get us out of the looming dystopia.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

The Gates Are Open

the beasts run out
the beasts escape
the beasts are free
the gates are open
the beasts see this event
differently 

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

But that seems to be a very good description of the type of government ’emerging worldwide.’

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
3 years ago

Good article. In order to clean your palate try reading ‘The Butchers’ by Michael Longley, say or the estimable Alice Oswald’s ‘Memorial. Admire their limpid and plangent English.

Alfred Prufrock
Alfred Prufrock
3 years ago

I approve of your first boyfriends choice .of poetry

Dan Martin
Dan Martin
3 years ago

I was making the effort and actually got through most of the inauguration, but when this soi disant poet came to the mike and started her slam poetry I had to change channels.

Sarah Stark
Sarah Stark
3 years ago

“It wasn’t until after 1688, when the Glorious Revolution put paid to all the drama — by ending absolute monarchy in favour of a purely ceremonial role” I think the terms “absolute monarchy” and “purely ceremonial” are a bit simplistic tbh.

Dean Baker
Dean Baker
3 years ago

The lowest common denominator always conflates the ability to speak with having a voice, and the fact that they can speak with being equal to having the discipline to work at art. Intellectual laziness has never less required an excuse for being an individual… just like everyone else.
They fail to comprehend that being an artist – writer, musician, etc.- always meant the work came first, whatever the ultimate determination of its worth, not the persona of the dilettante poseurs whose worship of the superficial is endless: the best justification being that since it is unlimited what passes for their minds confuses it for eternal value.
The fact that the greater populace is overwhelmed by that tripe is due to the billionaire corporations dictating ‘taste’ by catering to whatever brings them the greatest profit, and poetry was never one of those things.
Art will always be always daring and new. Its substitute is complacent as a drug requiring only acceptance of the latest regurgitation in this newest idiocrasy or vomitorium.

Leslie Cook
Leslie Cook
3 years ago

Yes and thanks for great piece. Propaganda as art. My non poetry reading liberal friends are gaga over it. Me, not so much.

David Fitzsimons
David Fitzsimons
3 years ago

I’m not sure I buy the argument presented above (I am sure I don’t connect all the dots the same way).

The Age of Reason is over. Rhetoric is back. The new court poets are jostling for patronage.

The age of reason might appear to be over, but thankfully it’s not. Reason will carry on changing the world (alas not always for the better), just not in public, like trendy poets at inaugurations or modern day McGonagall’s on social media – except, that is, for things like vaccines. Rhetoric never went away – it’s what politicians do and did, not only the populist ones. Artists do indeed jostle for patronage, so do freelance journalists.

Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
3 years ago

If there’s a difference today, it’s that unlike the Elizabethan court, the digital-era update of “slam poetry” seeks to purge language of any reference to literary tradition. Elizabethan poets mingled Biblical references with classical ones in a dazzling range of allusions. But today, even superficially innocent areas of literary and cultural study are coded alongside objectivity as problematic repositories of whiteness.

I think there is a simpler explanation. There is no point referencing a tradition the audience does not know about. Educational impoverishment is greater with each succeeding cohort after the boomers as the collective social memory becomes more dilute.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
3 years ago

John Keats wrote; “we hate art that has a palpable design upon us” -this was grotesquely, cringingly, liberal progressive – thoroughly banal and meaningless -without depth, dimension, nuance, colour, shade, or light – hitting new levels of narcissistic idealism -a delight for the self anointed virtuous – and one for the Oprah Winfrey crowd. To be honest, it was an obscenity, not poetry. John Keats would have hated it. And so did I.

David Bottomley
David Bottomley
3 years ago

Oh , heavens help us. I knew nothing about Slam but from what I can tell, it’s simply the product of little more than a load of open mike ‘ talent shows’ for would be poets who feel they have something to offer in front of an audience of like minded. OK – whatever rocks your boat. Perhaps little more than open mike, open stage comedy shows from which, the rare gem emerges from a lot of the pretty humdrum. As for ‘bringing democracy to poetry’ which some rather grandly and pompously claim. Well, yes but only ‘democracy’ as in anyone can stand up and sing, make jokes or whatever in the pub, at Karaoke nights, open mike events, the Edinburgh Fringe etc etc . You get some gems in amongst a lot of embarrassing and painful dross!

the poem itself is not a poem but has strong elements and a weak echo of a political speech that could have been given by JFK in full flow or Martin Luther. Best seen as such rather than a poem

Last edited 3 years ago by David Bottomley
James Rainsford
James Rainsford
3 years ago

An interesting analysis, But rejection of the values of the Enlightenment and the lauding of history-cancelling rap poetry will not end with a new age of cohesion and harmony.

Otto Christensen
Otto Christensen
3 years ago

At the risk of hurting her feelings far too much has been made of Gormans’s “occasional “ verse and thinly disguised propaganda. ‘Age of reason’ poets have good reason to be jealous for they have neither the protection purchased at University Creative-writing Departments nor the flashy coats of identity based issues with which to attract social media sales. The only consolation is that court notoriety is quickly forgotten, like popcorn candy it explodes in the mouth but moves quickly through the digestive tract.

Phil Vernon
Phil Vernon
3 years ago

I think Sir Philip Sidney was long gone by 1595…

G Matthews
G Matthews
3 years ago

“Each of us engaged in never-ending dramatisation of our idealised selves” – I like that! You can try listening to Tom McDonald for a different type of modern poetry.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago

I enjoyed the Slam Poetry at the inauguration – a message of hope (and even, dare I say the word, progress) seemed entirely appropriate after the riots that Mary Harrington sees as a manifestation of demos, and that others considered insurrection or sedition. I hadn’t noticed the absence of literary references in Amanda Gorman’s work – though I’m not sure literary namechecks are necessarily a virtue.
But as for: “The Age of Reason is over. Rhetoric is back” – I’m not sure that the rhetoric had ever gone away (the style and delivery of POTUS #45 notwithstanding).
And is it really necessary to ‘dismiss ‘objectivity, truth and linear thinking as â€œwhiteness”‘ in order to appreciate ‘fancy verbal footwork‘?

Last edited 3 years ago by Paul N
George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago

‘You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world’

UnHerd and the destruction of the superlative DISQUS comments system for an absolute rubbish alternative.

Prize for whose quote and about what?

Last edited 3 years ago by George Lake
Ross C
Ross C
3 years ago

Mary – what do you consider are our shared values?

Nick Lyne
Nick Lyne
3 years ago

Great article here by one of the translators of Gorman’s “poetry” https://english.elpais.com/arts/2021-03-12/the-challenge-of-translating-amanda-gorman-if-you-are-white.html

Hannah Cohen
Hannah Cohen
3 years ago

It’s fine to critique Gorman, but I think using it as a reason to criticize slam poetry as a whole is very disingenuous or at the least showing ignorance of or disengagement with the arts. Slam poetry is a huge tent with a long history and no political motivations. Slam poet Buddy Wakefield is one of the most astounding artists I have ever seen, and Jim Morrison is arguably a slam poet merging poetry with music in much of his repertoire.

Robert Forde
Robert Forde
3 years ago

How illuminating it is to read so many rightwing comments from people exhibiting precisely the sort of closed minds they criticise in others.

Kate H. Armstrong
Kate H. Armstrong
3 years ago
Reply to  Robert Forde

Indeed! Do not be too hard on yourself.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Robert Forde

You left out the semi colon after ‘people’.

j hoffman
j hoffman
3 years ago

Another well-meaning but shallow discussion by an Unherd author proritising her OWN exeriences–valid enough, as women are prone to do–over the more general point.
IT WAS CRAP!
Amanda Gorman, clearly heartfelt, was mouthing, cliches!

Here is MY Go:
I need to Feel
Small Black Woman
Though I Be
That Someone
Is Paying Attention
To Me
My Voice
Is Small
But My Issue
Large
How to Give
Voice to
People Like
ME
ETC, ETC
There you go, off the top of my head. Decent?
The Issue is NOT the Need to Give such Voices Expression. But the Skill with which it is Done. Much Confusion here.
If I can do it So Poorly, Others can do it better. Where are they?

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago
Reply to  j hoffman

In an article comprising over 20 paragraphs, only the first two referred to Mary Harrington’s personal experience, how is that “prioritising her own experiences” ? did you read all the rest or just shoot from the hip ?

Toby Josh
Toby Josh
3 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Because, as you identified, they are the _first_ two paragraphs.

j hoffman
j hoffman
3 years ago
Reply to  Toby Josh

Thanks! That’s her told!

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago
Reply to  Toby Josh

An article or essay is not a list of priorities, it usually has an introduction, a middle – consisting of an argument or set of arguments, and a conclusion. Mary has used a personal experience to introduce the subject of her article which is poetry being used as propaganda, in particular Amanda Gorman’s poem, this is not the same as prioritising her own experiences.

j hoffman
j hoffman
3 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Do you really think it is necessary to Lecture this audience on the Traditional Structure of THE ESSAY?
Anyway, your quibbling misses the Major Points. That Young Black Woman is quite right in wanting HER Voice to be heard.
She just doesn’t have the skill to do it very Effectively in “slam poetry”, which a very low grade of Poetry, if Poetry at all.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
3 years ago
Reply to  j hoffman

You should have something worth saying before you decide you want your voice to be heard

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

Yes, worth saying, and original-if that’s not too much to ask…

j hoffman
j hoffman
3 years ago

Call me Old Fashioned, but I think EVERYONE has the Right to Be Heard.
I Also LOVE the way I am getting Down Votes here, just for spouting Common Sense and Traditional Enlightenment Liberal Morality!

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  j hoffman

Does the “right to be heard” imply that one must listen?

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

Exactly. As people would say back home: “My ears are no potty, you know?”

Allons Enfants
Allons Enfants
3 years ago
Reply to  j hoffman

I think EVERYONE has the Right to Be Heard.

Not at all. Everyone has the right to say whatever they want to say. NOBODY has the right to be heard.
There’s a world of difference between speaking and being heard.
Everyone has the right to NOT listen to anyone who wants to be heard.

Allons Enfants
Allons Enfants
3 years ago
Reply to  j hoffman

just for spouting Common Sense and Traditional Enlightenment Liberal Morality!

You spouted neither of those.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  j hoffman

I would have added the word arse at one point.
Otherwise Alpha pus.

Allons Enfants
Allons Enfants
3 years ago
Reply to  j hoffman

There you go, off the top of my head. Decent?

No. It’s rubbish, actually.